2 Reasons Why Your Openings Fail (And How To Fix It)

Which opening should you play? This is a question that haunts may chess players!
Which opening should you play? This question haunts many chess players!

You cannot expect your choice of opening to compensate for a lack in other important middle- or endgame skills.

You’ve probably heard that there is no such thing as a perfect opening. Else everyone would play it.

However, some openings are better than others. It is your challenge to discover which openings suit you. Often in this process of discovery a player may try out a certain opening and then discard it for the wrong reasons.

Is this you?–you try a new opening, things go wrong, you lose badly… and then you decide – this opening doesn’t work for me!?

Before you blame your losses on your choice of opening, you should first understand 2 of the main reasons why your opening could fail:

  1. You expect too much from your opening
  2. You don’t understand the opening well enough

Here’s the important details:

1. You expect too much from your opening

The opening is just the start of the game . The purpose is to develop your pieces and achieve a decent middle-game position. Accept that you cannot always get an advantage from the opening – and if you do – that’s a bonus.

A typical example to further illustrate the point

Picture this. A chess player achieves a good middle-game position against a stronger player. However, since his opponent is a stronger player, over the course of the game his position gets worse. He eventually loses and isn’t even sure why he lost. Should he blame the opening for his loss? Of course not.

You cannot expect your choice of opening to compensate for a lack in other important middle- or endgame skills

More often than not, in games below master level, it’s not your choice of opening that fails you. Rather, it’s your (lack of) knowledge and understanding of how that opening should be played that fails you.

Which brings us to the 2nd reason why your opening may fail you:

2. You don’t understand the opening well enough

Memorizing the main variations of the opening you play can be useful – as long as your opponent plays the moves you know or expect. But what happens when they deviate from the moves you memorized?

The moment an opening deviates from the main lines, your true understanding of the opening will be tested.

Magnus Carlsen often makes effective use of such opening deviations. He avoids his opponent’s opening preparation by occasionally choosing a move that – even if it may theoretically be an inferior move – neutralizes his opponent’s opening preparation. He does this because he believes his strength lies in his understanding of the game. Naturally he wants to play to his strengths, so he is willing to make a small compromise if that will steer the game into a direction where his strengths come into play.

How well do you understand your opening?

You can test your understanding of your opening by checking how well you can answer the questions below:

  1. Where do each of the individual pieces go in my opening and why are those the best squares for them?
  2. Which side will my king castle and is this always the case? When do exceptions come into play?
  3. Which are the typical traps and tactics that occur in my opening?
  4. What typically happens to the pawn-structure in the centre and what are the middle-game ideas that flow from it? (Because middle-game plans depends mostly on the situation in the centre.)
  5. Which piece-exchanges are usually to my advantage in this opening? Which exchanges should I avoid, and why?
  6. Which are the key positions that I need to know if I play this opening?

That said, what can you do to improve your understanding the opening you choose to play?

If you couldn’t answer the above questions as well as you would like to, I recommend you check out a openings database and select a number of games (say 20-50 games), where your choice of opening was played by masters. Go through these games and keep the above questions in mind. You will soon start to notice the typical patterns in that opening. By studying a whole number of games in this way (and whilst referring to the list of questions above)  you will get a much better understanding of the opening.

Tip: When you’re looking for an opening to learn – go for main-line openings. There is a good reason why they are called “main-line”. They are time-tested and over the course of your chess development, you will be glad you studied them. “Sideline-openings” have their place and require much less study but if you are serious about improving your chess–sideline openings will not give you a solid enough foundation.

Also see: Why Visualization Is the Most Important Skill in Chess